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1. In the Beginning was the Deed Wittgenstein believed that communication started as a form of action. He says: “In the beginning was the deed.” (Not “the Word.”) He also offered a frame theory: “One thinks that one is tracing the outline of the thing’s nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing round the frame through which we look at it.” Gregory Bateson, a pioneer in the field of relational research, was fascinated by action forms of communication. In this category, he placed such forms as dreams, religion, art, play, fantasy, humor, and animal communication. These have no simple way to indicate the negative. For instance, an otter distinguishes playing from fighting by the hardness of the bite. So-called schizophrenic communication also had a problem with the negative. A person with this label might say something but then disqualify it by a behavior, or act in one way but make a disclaimer. A good example might be the Mother’s Day card cited by Jay Haley, that a mental patient gave his mother with the words: “To One Who Has Been Just Like a Mother to Me.” These stories backed up the Bateson group’s pivotal idea of the “double bind,” in which a statement on one level (e.g. Go away now) is qualified by a covert reversal (e.g. gestures meaning “Forget what I just said”). Feeling that the term “nonverbal” was too weak for this complicated category, I decided to call it “the Unlisted Languages.” I welcomed Richard Baldwin’s term for the consulting process, “Esthetic Action,” as a move in the same direction. 2. From Construction to Dialogue. Bateson didn’t separate the individual from the context, but focused on the interplay of parts within the larger ecology. Perhaps this is why he never adopted the concept of the “family system”. He usually distrusted noun-like entities because it was so easy to see them as dysfunctional. For the same reason, he opposed the idea of “counting double binds.” Not only was this reductive of the complexity family therapists face, but it amounted to what he called an “epistemological error.” Paul Watzlawick, of the MRI, favored a somewhat different view which came to be called Constructivism. This idea holds that our knowledge of the world is constructed by the nature of our sensory equipment. For this reason, we can never know what the world is really like. Watzlawick offers the story of the pilot who steers his boat at night through a rocky channel as an example of a kind of negative knowledge. The only way he knows that he steered the
boat correctly is that he didn’t hit a rock. Kenneth Gergen rescued us from pure Constructivism by proposing Social Construction Theory. We don’t just cognize as individuals isolated by our nervous systems, but are influenced by a penumbra of ideas from social entities like family, community and culture. Thus Gergen talks about a “community of knowers.” Like Wittgenstein, he saw abstract concepts like gender as a frame through which we, the knowers, see the world, and what we see reflects that frame. This position still leaves us with some unit (the individual, the family, the community) at the center, filtering knowledge through a sensory, cultural or political set of optics. The philologist Mikhail Bakhtin took a leap out of that enclosed bubble when he compared monologic to dialogic thinking. He held that the first position, the position of the expert, was one of “aboutness,” and that the second, based on the inclusion of the “other,” was one of “withness.” Differing from the constructivists, he felt that giving pride of place to the perceiving mind was wrong, because it ignored the dialogical relationship between one human and another. 3: From System to Rhizome: I first began to see that the word “System” had become limiting through my connection to Chris Kinman, who devoured postmodern philosophy like eggdrop soup. He seemed to be searching for descriptions that would build on the changes wrought by our increasingly web-based world. In the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, two French philosophers, Chris found a startling basic metaphor in the guise of the ordinary botanical group called Rhizome. Here is their description of this idea: “A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. The tree is filiation, but the rhizome is alliance, uniquely alliance. The tree imposes the verb “to be,” but the fabric of the rhizome is the conjunction, “and…and…and… This conjunction carries enough force to shake and uproot the verb ‘to be.’” Deleuze and Guattari use the single word “arborescence” to describe the hierarchical format imposed by the tree, and make an impassioned case for strategies that undermine it. It was at this moment that I found a work by Ari Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, called “The Starfish and the Spider.” These gifted researchers came from a technological background. Their book offered us a new set of contrapuntal structures. The Starfish can lose its arms and new ones will grow back. Cut it into pieces and new sets of starfish will appear. Its parts are not very differentiated. But the Spider is built along hierarchical lines. Cut its head off, and the entire organism will die. Brafman and Beckman then told about a lucky break. They stumbled on the
work of an anthropologist who was writing about two historical groups which offered a perfect illustration for both Starfish and Spider regimes. On the one hand, there were the hierarchically organized forces of the Spanish Çonquistadores, who easily wiped out two complex civilizations, the Aztec and the Incas. If their leaders refused to give the marauders the gold they wanted, they killed them, and subsequently the society dissolved. The second historical group was typified by the Apaches. These were loosely structured tribes whose social glue was weak, like that of a Starfish. Instead of a leader, the Apaches had Shamans, who had less power and were in any case replaceable. The Apaches excelled at the sneak and attack mode. If the Spanish tried to fight back, the Apache warriors folded their teepees and melted away. They were not a monolithic body, so the Spanish could never conquer them. There is a point to be made here. Perhaps the reason hierarchical civilizations fail in conventional wars against horizontally organized, nomadic societies is because these entities are like starfish. Cut off their limbs and they will grow new ones. Cut them up, and twice as many angry starfish will take their place. But the main reason this story interested me was because it compared a rhizome-like “flat world” (Thank you, Thomas Friedman) to the hierarchical nature of modern bureaucracies made famous by philosopher Michel Foucault. This means that we have a hopeful alternative. For political Starfish examples we need go no further than Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. The rhizome-like connectedness the Web offers, backed by inventions like Tweeter and Youtube, represent an increasingly powerful tool. I too have come to substitute the image of the Rhizome for the image of the System. The Internet itself is a rhizome, and it is changing our Western world just as the Gutenberg Bible changed it centuries ago. 4. Are Impingement Theories Useful? Biological researchers like Alva Noe believe that our presence in the world does not fit with the depiction of consciousness as “a brain in a vat.” Here is a quote from an interview with him (“Out of Our Heads: Why You are Not Your Brain, and other Lessons From the Biology of Consciousness.” Interview by Christine Smallwood: (The Nation, March 16, 2009.) Smallwood asked him: “Does your work on consciousness have consequences for interspecies relationships, for animal rights?” Noe answers: The classical picture of our human predicament is that we’re all interiority and the world as far as we know is nothing but a source of impingement. We’re bombarded with sensory stimulation, and insofar as we think we occupy a world with an independent existence and other people, all that is really sort of a conjecture; we’re trapped inside
the caverns of our one conscious mind. “I’m offering a different picure, where the world and others around us come first, and we are spread out and plugged in and implicated. Think of a row of bushes; each bush is interwoven with the other bushes, the roots reach down into the ground and entangle with each other. The picture that emerges is we’re at home in the world, we’re of the world, the world is not a projection or this alien thing, just as other people are not just merely acting bodies but are present for us as meaningful and important. The natural extension of that is to acknowledge that the species boundary is not a particularly special boundary. When you encounter life, especially animal life but not only animal life, you don’t hypothesize the presence of the life around us. That there’s life around us and that we get it and we recognize it is the precondition for the kind of life we are. I think this is a good statement of the differences between what I call the Collaborative-Reflective ways of working and the Constructivist or Social Constructionist approaches that that focus on language in relation to meaning. The former have a tap-root that goes back to the early days of Bateson’s vision of the world as an ecologically connected web. The latter are centered on what Noe calls the idea of the world as an “impingement.” This suggests that our knowing depends on a filtering mouth like a whale’s, which allows in only what its biological or social equipment accepts. I think it is time that we challenged this statement as only partly true, and ask ourselves which relational approaches have already moved toward a more connecting, web-like view. 5. Which Relational Practices Belong to a Starfish Federation? I like the idea that we are born into an earth-based environment like a Devonshire hedge. These famous living walls are woven out of hundreds of different species over hundreds of years, including the animals and humans who keep and are kept by it. It is a concept that is close to Bateson’s example of the relationship between horse and turf, each gradually changing the other and evolving mutually. This arrangement is an exact illustration for Bateson’s Mind-and-Nature seminal idea. I also like the Rhizome as a ruling metaphor, with its horizontal flow-shapes and implications of subversion and surprise. Again let me cite a Bateson phrase: “Creativity is based on the random.” So which approaches might be natural candidates for a Starfish Federation? I would include Boscolo and Cecchin’s “Circular Questioning,” Harlene Anderson’s “Collaborative Practices,” Tom Anderson’s “Reflecting Process,” Michael White’s “Outsider Witnesses,” Jaakko Seikkula and Mary Olsons’ “Dialogic Networks,” Chris Kinman’s “Rhizome Way” and the Sharevision approach of Ellen Landis, Lisa Thompson, and Richard Baldwin. These views all include specific practices of web-building in which people can feel (my wording) “more safe, more free and more alive”. Aliveness, not health, is the
basic shift of meaning here. Other versions of these ideas are sprouting outside of my single awareness, but my occasional gift for prediction makes me believe that I may be attached to the larger enterprise. Which brings me to this passage from a really old friend, the psychologist Carl Jung. In this passage from his prologue to “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” he says: Life has always seemed to me like a plant which lives on its rhizome. The part that appears above the ground lasts only a single summer. Then it withers away – an ephemeral apparition. When we think of the unending growth and decay of life and civilizations, we cannot escape the impression of absolute nullity. Yet I have never lost the sense of something that lives and endures beneath the eternal flux. What we see is blossom, which passes. The rhizome remains.
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